Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Defense of Sarah Palin

In the days after the announcement of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate, I was talking with an acquaintance of mine - Ivy League educated, now a college professor - about the pick. One of the first things he did was to mock her for only having a journalism degree from the University of Idaho, and that her goal of a Sportscenter job must not have panned out. I didn't really know how to respond at the time, as I wasn't expecting that, so I just let it go. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a steady barrage of such attacks that would be thrown at Palin - by Democrats, the media and even some Republicans - over the next two months.

I. The Recriminations
In the last couple weeks of the election, and particularly since the end of the election, McCain campaign aides (anonymous, of course, so as to ensure they can continue sabotaging future campaigns) have launched a full-scale offensive against Palin in an attempt to blame her for the ticket's defeat in the election. We've been told she was unbelievably dumb, and didn't know that Africa was a continent and not a country, and that she didn't know what NAFTA was. We were told she was a "diva" and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses on clothing for herself and her family. We're told she refused to prepare for her now-infamous interview with Katie Couric. We're told she "went rogue" and brought up Bill Ayers before anyone signed off on the topic. We were told that she answered her door at the hotel in Minneapolis during the convention to let in "senior campaign aides" in either a towel or her bathrobe (stories vary, of course) because she had just gotten out of the shower. She also apparently refused to go on stage at one New Hampshire rally with John Sununu and former Rep. Jeb Bradley, who was running for his old seat, because Sununu was "pro-choice" and Bradley opposed drilling in Alaska. This is just the beginning.

Of course, most of this sounds entirely implausible. One of Palin's aides from Alaska who accompanied her on the campaign trail recently told ABC News that the comment on Africa was human error, like when Barack Obama said he had traveled to all 57 states in the country. Another aide said she was well aware of a number of African issues, including Darfur, failed states, and AIDS initiatives, making it unlikely that she wouldn't know what Africa is. As for NAFTA, the same foreign policy aid has stated that it is also untrue, as he was the one briefing her on various trade agreements. (Besides, does anyone really think a governor of a state that does a great deal of business with Canada, a governor who negotiated a natural gas line to run through Canada from Alaska to the lower 48 wouldn't know what NAFTA is?)
One aide also explained that Palin was opposed to wearing a $3,500 shirt, but was given clothes she was told to wear. As for Sununu and Bradley, on the surface this is pretty funny that she didn't know what Africa was but she knew the voting records of a Senator and former Congressman, who got voted out of office before she even became governor, from a state on the other side of the country. Of course, this is wrong, as Sununu had a 100% pro-life voting record. Also, she had no apparent problem appearing on stage with them at other New Hampshire rallies.
Finally, Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser, claimed that the Ayers attack was fully vetted and approved by HQ. Scheunemann has worked with McCain before, and is well respected in the foreign policy world, and he was assigned to Palin to help with debate prep, in which he played the role of Joe Biden. He called her "brilliant" and said she had a photographic memory. There were reports, since denied, that he was fired for telling reporters that there was a faction of the campaign that was getting ready to savage Palin in order to blame her for the coming electoral defeat.
II. The Roll Out
The real scandal in the whole Sarah Palin ordeal, however, began shortly after she was picked as McCain's running mate. The idea, I have to imagine, was to roll her out as a Young Turk of sorts, a reformer who had been cleaning out the Alaskan Republican Party from that which had made it a symbol of all that was wrong with the national party. When she served as ethics chair and member of the Alaskan Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the regulatory body for the industry, she was responsible for submitting regular, signed reports that there had been no ethics violations under her watch. Randy Reudrich, chair of the state Republican Party and member of the Commission, had been conducting Republican Party business from his commission office, received deferred compensation from companies under investigation by the commission, lobbied for a coal-bed methane developer and undermined the work of the commission while he was supposed to be regulating the industry. No one else did anything, so Palin sent incriminating emails to her boss, the state Attorney General, Gregg Renkes. Reudrich resigned, and eventually settled for a $12,000 fine, but there was no follow-up investigation. As a result, Palin herself resigned in protest. Eventually, it came to light that Renkes himself was tied to coal technology companies, negotiating trade deals that benefited the company whose executives Renkes knew and in which he owned $120,000 in stock. Within two months, Renkes had also resigned.
She would then go on to challenge the governor, fellow Republican Frank Murkowski, whose administration was plagued by these scandals, among others. She won the primary, and then defeated a former two-term governor in the general election. Once in office, she continued efforts to clean up the mess from an entrenched and corrupt Republican party, including the corruption tied to the earmark process. Though she did not eliminate all earmark requests, she significantly reduced the amont requested and distanced herself from an increasingly corrupt congressional delegation, some members of which had engaged in questionable deals with a major oil services company in Alaska tied to abuse of the earmarking process. Her Lieutenant Governor, Sean Parnell, even ran against At-Large Congressman Don Young in the primary earlier this year, losing by only a few hundred votes. Palin also looked at a number of deals engineered by the previous (Republican) administration, including a natural gas pipeline deal with the same oil services company that resulted in the conviction of Murkowski's chief of staff, Jim Clark, earlier this year for arranging illegal payments from the company to Murkowski's re-election campaign.
This is, presumably, how the campaign wanted to present Palin to the people. If this was the plan, it failed miserably. The campaign made no mention of any of this record, except that Palin wanted to do something about earmarks. The press took this to mean that she was claiming her record, like McCain's, was earmark free - which it wasn't. McCain's admirable ability to avoid ever having to request a single earmark aside, the objection is not to federal funding of local projects, but rather to abuse of the system in which it is carried out. Instead of saying Palin was working on reforming the earmarking process from within a hopelessly corrupt state Republican Party while simultaneously reducing requests so as to cut unnecessary spending, they pretended she was adamantly opposed to all earmarks. This claim was shot to pieces within days when the media found out that she had asked for earmarks as governor, even though she had greatly reduced the amount requested during the previous administration, and had even requested some earmarks while mayor of Wasilla. Within days, therefore one of Palin's strongest and most nonpartisan attributes had been called into question by the press.

When McCain revealed Palin as his pick in Ohio on August 28, her speech did not mention a single social or cultural issue. She talked about her family, her reform efforts in Alaska, McCain's presonal story and character, and the role of women in politics - including Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro. After that appearance in Dayton, Palin did not reemerge until the next Thursday, September 4, when she gave her convention speech in Minneapolis. In that period of less than a week, the media and Democrats threw everything they had at her, including the kitchen sink.
III. The Attacks
The media and bloggers engaged in some of the most vicious rumor mongering about Palin's personal life. Within a day, bloggers, including those at prominent media outlets, speculated that her infant son Trig was not actually her son, but rather her oldest daguhters's son. Other media organizations apparently demanded to see proof that Trig was Palin's son. This was about the only attack on which the campaign did hit back, revealing that Palin's daughter Bristol was five months pregnant. (Of course, the same individuals at prominent media outlets nevertheless spent the remainder of the campaign demanding to see Trig's birth certificate). Shortly thereafter, the National Enquirer alleged that Palin had had an affair with a family friend. When a family friend happened to file to have his divorce records sealed, reporters rushed to Wasilla to sue for their release. Of course, it turned out that there was nothing there, but that didn't stop the rumor mongering.
As some parts of the media were dragging themselves through the gutter, Democrats, including the Obama campaign, proceeded to mock Palin as nothing more than a former small town mayor - ignoring her record as governor of Alaska and acting as if the only experience she had was just as mayor of a small town. The day she was picked, I was at the airport, and Jack Cafferty was gleefully reading emails from viewers, nearly all of which mocked her description of herself as a "hockey mom" and her experience on the PTA. Like my friend mentioned above, the fact that she only graduated from Idaho (especially after spending time at a number of other schools for financial and personal reasons), that she only had a journalism degree and that she had started her career in sports broadcasting were somehow signs that she just wasn't quite up to the job.

Throughout all of this, during the first weekend and week prior to the Republican convention, nobody bothered to look at her record. Even a simple wikipedia search would have told you more about Palin's record than the media did then (or ever). This would be the biggest problem, and the campaign's biggest failing. They not only let the left and media call into question her reformist credentials, they let them completely rewrite the narrative that would shape Palin's entire time on the campaign. Not content to mock Palin's college, small town and isolated state, they caricatured her as a fire-breathing social conservative - quick to resort to class warfare and wedge issues.

They claimed she supported Pat Buchanan, the best known class warrior of them all, because, as mayor, she wore a Pat Buchanan button to a rally when Buchanan was visiting Wasilla during one of his presidential runs. Rep. Robert Wexler then went on TV and accused her of holding Buchanan's views on Israel while an Obama spokesman accused her of supporting a Nazi-sympathizer. The only problem is, she didn't. She had written an op-ed to a local paper after it mentioned that she was supporting Buchanan in which she asserted that she did not support him and that she was merely welcoming a presidential candidate to her town, as she would have done with any candidate. She was, in fact, co-chair of the state's Steve Forbes campaign.

Next, she had supposedly been a member of an anti-American Alaskan "secessionist party," which actually turned out to be a fringe mainstream political party comparable to a crazy uncle in the attic rather than the Confederacy circa 1861. She was never a member, but had once attended a conference and, as a courtesy as governor, had made a very brief welcome speech for their 2007 convention in which she gave lip service to something the party had in common with Republicans: small government.

Next, they claimed she wanted to teach creationsm. In actuality, she said she wouldn't oppose schools teaching whatever they wanted - she wasn't going to try to block either creationism or evolution.
In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms:

"I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum.

[...] "I won't have religion as a litmus test, or anybody's personal opinion on evolution or creationism," Palin said.

She was also accused of cutting special needs funding, which I guess was particularly incriminating because she was the mother of a special needs child, and had claimed it as a cause close to her heart. In actuality, however, she raised the funding levels quite significantly - just not quite as significantly as the legislature had requested.

Next, she supposedly tried to ban books in the local library upon taking office as mayor of Wasilla. The story, however, was much more mundane. The department heads in the government had served under previous mayor John Stein, a fellow Republican with whom Palin had a contentios relationship. Palin made clear that the department heads would not be able to remain loyal to Stein, but would have to transfer their loyalties to the new mayor. She then went about testing their loyalty. She asked library director, Mary Ellen Emmons, what she would do if Palin requested a book be banned. Emmons gave her an honest answer, saying she'd fight such a request.

The media has since reported that the subsequent resignation demanded by Palin was retribution for Emmons' unwillingness to ban the book, and that Palin only rescinded the demand following outcry from the town. In fact, Palin requested resignations from all department heads, another test of their loyalty. Most offered their resignation, and they subsequently got their jobs back. Some, however, were fired, including Police Chief Irl Stambaugh, a Stein ally who had made his opposition to Palin well known. Stambaugh, Stein and another Stein ally from the City Council then went on to form Concerned Citizens for Wasilla to discuss the option of launching a recall against Palin. In the end, the group disbanded without making any such attempt. Stambaugh sued the town for contract violation and gender discrimination. He lost.

All of this came out in the first five days following the announcement of McCain's pick of Palin, and the campaign made no apparent attempt to hit back on any of it. Just about every last accusation against her proved to be untrue, but the media and Democrats nevertheless used it to establish the narrative that the campaign had not vetted Palin and that this fit into the narrative that the Democrats were trying to paint about McCain being "erratic." The spinning of this new narrative continued. Palin gave a terrific convention speech, which was tremendously received, even by many skeptics. Since the Obama campaign had hit her on the small town mayor claim, Palin and the campaign hit back with a defense against the attacks on small towns, and included a few digs on community organizers. She spoke about special needs children, touched on energy, foreign policy and other issues, while throwing in sufficient amounts of red meat given the convention setting.
IV. Bunker Mentality
Soon after, however, something happened. Whether it was, as rumored, the Bush-Cheney people who were responsible for some of the bunker mentality of the early days of the second Bush term, I don't know. Gone were the attempts to highlight Palin's record. Without allowing her to start campaigning on the issues, the Democrats continued to succeed with lies about her social policies and painting her as little more than a class warrior and a sop to the right wing crazies. They continued using a shorter version of her convention speech for her stump speech. When questioned by the media what her qualifications were on foreign policy, the campaign did not take the Bush/Clinton route. These two were also once governors with little foreign policy exposure, but they relieved fears by bringing out their foreign policy advisers. Bush made sure to bring Rice, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Armitage and others into the campaign, and while he didn't know Musharraf's name, it wasn't that big a deal in the end. Granted, foreign policy plays a much bigger role today than it did in 2000, but Palin was also running for VP, with a foreign policy expert at the top of the ticket.

Instead, the campaign decided to make up foreign policy credentials. Though they are best known coming from Palin on Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, staff members were the first ones to use the talking points that the Alaskan governor was commander in chief of the Alaskan National Guard, or that Alaska's proximity to Russia provided the requisite experience. Palin's use of these lines (or at least the proximity to Russia) in her interviews - and the subsequent mockery on Saturday Night Live - was one of the primary reasons why some voters came to see her as too inexperienced for the job. Yet, the campaign pumped her full of these kinds of talking points and sent her into interviews with Charlie Gibson, who spent the entire interview sighing loudly as if he had someplace better to be and staring down his nose over his glasses at Palin like a school marm scolding a misbehaving student.
Though she asked some perfectly legitimate questions, Couric also asked some inane questions, including one about details of John McCain's legislative records after Palin had only been on the ticket a couple weeks. You could almost see her reaching for the appropriate talking point during her interviews, which is how health care made its way into an answer to a question about the bailout. Meanwhile, there were no call-ins to talk radio and no attempt at easing her into the limelight with interviews in more friendly atmospheres, with the exception of Hannity and Colmes. Even then, though, you could tell she was still reaching for the talking points rather than talking about the issues she knew. But if this was a result of her alleged stupidity, what does that say about the campaign staffers who negotiated the deal with ABC and CBS to allow individual segments to air over a number of days? This arrangement guaranteed that any embarrassing moments from a single interview would air night after night, thereby giving the impression that Palin had blown several individual interviews, one after another.
Then came the Vice Presidential debate. By all accounts, Palin and her husband had become fed up with her handlers by then, and they wanted to get out of the bunker mentality. Some members of the campaign, however, had already started to turn on her. Whether it was her handlers or not, I don't know. Whether it was the claim about Africa referred to above or not, something caused "anonymous sources" to start leaking that Palin was a disaster in the debate prep. Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser, handled Palin's debate prep and would later become her staunchest defender. Whatever problems there may have been in the prep, she more than held her own against Biden in the debate. This was the tunrnaround point for Palin. She obviously shook loose her minders and started holding more impromptu chats with her press corps, gaining a reputation for being the most accessible candidate from either ticket. (Incidentally this is also the point at which the anti-Palin leaks became more frequent. I won't speculate as to whether there is a connection there).

The campaign nevertheless kept Palin on the culture attacks (somewhat cynically, these were the same people who now deride her and her family as "Wasilla hillbillies.") They now accuse her of using the Ayers attack before it was approved by the senior staff and McCain, but, as mentioned, Scheunemann hit back at the time saying that it had been completely vetted and approved. Nevertheless, the leaked comments still give off the impression that the culture war tact was hers all along. According the media, she was the one stirring up the crowds, race-baiting and refusing the denounce alleged, and some of which have since been disproven, shouts of "kill him" and "terrorist." All this by daring to mention the fact that Obama had extremely questionable acquaintances, reflecting poorly on his judgment.
V. Substance
In the last couple weeks of the campaign, Palin gave major policy speeches on special needs children and energy policy. Both were well received, and the media speculated as to whether she should have been doing them from the beginning. While it is a bit ironic that the same people that defined Palin from the beginning as lacking substance suddenly became shocked that there was substance there, I nevertheless agree. Hitting back at the convention against criticisms launched by the Democrats about her small town roots was brilliant, but beating that approach to death made Palin appear to be an empty slate. (It was particularly cynical now that we know what these campaign aides think of small towns like Wasilla and the "hillbillies" who live there).
And while the attacks on Obama for his association with Ayers was entirely legitimate, the way the campaign handled it was self-defeating. By only mentioning one person, it was easy for voters to think that their relationship had been either a coincidence or a single error in judgment. By not creating the narrative of a history of poor judgment calls in forming social and business relationships, from Wright to Pfleger to Governor Blagojevich to Tony Rezko, and so on. Instead they their commercials about Obama's associates included obscure people from Chicago politics and never mentioned what they or Obama had done wrong, instead flashing text headlines across the screen too quickly for anyone to read. They tried to tie Obama to William Daley, the mayor's brother, forgetting that the Daley machine has become more a national punch line (vote early, vote often) than anything else.
Their primary focus from the beginning should have been energy. They could have mentioned her role as chair of the National Governors' Association Natural Resources Committee. They could have had her focus on the same smart takedown of the Obama-Biden record on energy issues that Palin gave before she was even picked by McCain. Palin was added to the ticket on Friday, the day after Obama's speech on the last night of the Democratic Convention and a little under a week since Biden had been picked as Obama's running mate. Earlier that same week, during the Democratic Convention, Palin (at this point just in her role as Governor of Alaska) did an interview (skip to about the 3:00 mark) with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo where she had this to say:
It seems to be almost a naive notion of their's that we can automatically just jump right into a renewable supply of energy to feed hungry markets across our nation when these renewables are not yet proven to be economic nor reliable. We're going to be in a transition period for quite some time when we're going to have to be reliant on conventional sources of energy as we're working on the renewables, and we certainly have to head in that direction also, but it's got to be doing everything, everything we can to allow the domestic supplies, renewable and nonrenewable, to be tapped...and not just skip the oil and gas developments, and the coal development also, that we have to have as part of a comprehensive plan.
Palin and her husband Todd have often touted vocational training opportunities available in the oil and gas industry, a program he benefited from when he first went to work on the North Slope for BP. John McCain lost the Michigan primary to Mitt Romney in part because Romney told workers from the automotive industry who had been laid off that he would be able to bring those jobs back to Michigan. McCain, to his credit, avoided making such impausible promises, though it did contribute to his loss in that state in the primaries. After the convention, the campaign made a big push for Michigan, but soon decided to pull out of the state due to a lack of funds and inability to make headway in the state. Perhaps the Palins could have gone to Michigan to propose a workforce development initiative similar to the Alaska Works Partnership, which provides training and placement within the construction industry, or the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, which provides training in a number of fields, from technology to the health industry. Palin could have talked about the educational tax credits she provided to businesses that support vocational education.

They also could have had her address the difficult economic situation she inherited, and her ability to find solutions to these issues, such as cutting unemployment insurance taxes two years in a row and increasing unemployment benefits, moving Alaska from fourth from last to the midpoint of all states in terms of its unemployment benefits. They could have mentioned her focus on public health and crisis management abilities from planning for potential avian flu outbreaks since, at the time, many public health officials feared that Alaska, a crossroads for migratory birds, could be the site of the first cases of a "highly pathogenic strain of bird flu known as Asian H5N1." From Alaska, infected birds would be able to enter into the continental United States. They could have had her talk about her efforts to increase transparency and competition in Alaska's healthcare system, an effort that was ultimately defeated in the legislature in a sop to the hospitals in the state. They could have talked about her creation of a Climate Change Subcabinet and signing Alaska onto the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap and trade program, as an observer. They could have talked about how she established the Senior Benefits Program, which "provides support for low-income older Alaskans."
VII. Socially Conservative Libertarian
In short, the campaign failed to focus on her record. They let the media and Democrats turn her into a caricature of the social conservative culture warrior based not on her record, but simply on her own personal beliefs After successfully hitting back at the convention, they should have moved on to how her experience and her record would contribute to the ticket, with some populist red meat thrown in along the way. They should have demonstrated that Palin is a good example for how the different wings of the Republican Party - social conservatives and fiscally conservative libertarians - could easily work together, as she is essentially a social conservative who has governed as a libertarian. She has not tried to legislate social issues, but nevertheless spoke about her beliefs, worked to persuade, and ensured that no roll back occurred in the other direction occurred. She holds very conservative views on issues like abortion and gay marriage, but as governor vetoed a bill that would deny same sex couples domestic partner benefits provided to state employees. She has avoided red meat issues like abortion, but stated that she would hope that women considering an abortion would instead "choose life." Instead, we now have a President-elect who is ready to placate liberal interest groups by rolling back restrictions on federal funding of unproven embryonic stem cell research as well as restrictions on using taxpayer money to allow foreign aid to be spent on abortion.
Palin now returns to Alaska and the Governor's office where, with the falling price of oil, she will face a tougher budgetary challenge. This will provide an opportunity to show that she can govern as a fiscal conservative, even when times are tough, and not just when oil revenues are flowing into state coffers. Some are suggesting she run for the Senate should Ted Stevens win re-election and then be kicked out of the Senate. I think this would be a mistake. One of her biggest strengths during the campaign was that she was a Washington outsider with executive experience. I would stay in Alaska and run for re-election. Since the 2012 race may start soon after her 2010 re-election race, voters might be hesitant to vote for her if she were to then immediately enter the presidential race. She may therefore want to consider serving two full terms in Alaska, with an eye toward 2016. (This is assuming Obama's presidency has been farily successful by the time the 2012 race gears up. If his presidency has been at all bumpy, circumstances may change). Along the way she can continue her work that, even after the partisan rhetoric from the presidential race, still has her approval ratings near 70%. Along the way she can find ways to get involved at the national level, and improve her foreign policy knowledge and participation.
As for the red meat issues, she should probably avoid them when possible, except for when Obama starts catering to Planned Parenthood, as she's already established her pro-life bona-fides. When she does bring up the issue, it should be coached in the language of moderation and compromise in order to highlight Obama as the radical. She could say that while there is debate on issues like Roe v. Wade that we could discuss as a nation at a later time, most Americans can nevertheless agree that issues like partial birth abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion are too radical for this country. This could easily allow her to position herself as the reasonable moderate and Obama as out of touch with mainstream America by catering to ultra-liberal interest groups.